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69 CHAPTER 5 The Social Ladder and the Family Tree Competing Approaches to Structuring Identity In Genesis, genealogies play an important role in conveying what it means to be the people of Yhwh, but that role has largely been overlooked . Many readers dismiss genealogies as a superficial feature of the text or as a reflection of the biblical writers’ lack of sophistication. Such neglect of the rubric of family and its central role in Genesis has enabled the biblical text to be taken up as an expression of modern ways of conceptualizing communal identity. In particular, the book’s use of a family tree has been subsumed under the modern emphasis on a social ladder, a circumstance especially apparent in interpretations of the portion of the book considered in this chapter (9:18–­ 12:7). As invoked here, the idea of the social ladder relates the overt racial hierarchies common in the past to the more positive statements about human difference that now hold sway.1 Certain popular approaches to repudiating racism fail to fully escape its pitfalls because they continue to rely on the same central assumptions about human diversity. The image of a ladder being turned on its side dramatizes that reconfiguration of racial ideology. Examining the social ladder can help clarify its influence on the interpretation of Genesis and throw into relief the 1 This concept is taken from Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society (New York: New York University Press, 1996). 70 Belonging in Genesis contrast between its approach to structuring difference and the book’s image of the family tree. Recognizing the conflict between the social ladder and the family tree enables readers steeped in modern convention to recognize the powerful vision of human solidarity that emerges in Genesis 1:1–­ 12:7 and its potential to revitalize the way in which we conceive identity and difference. The Social Ladder The so-­ called curse of Ham constitutes one of the most important intersections of racial thinking and the biblical text. Those inclined to organize humanity according to race have often cast the story of Noah and his sons in a foundational role, making it an especially useful point of entry into the relationship between Genesis and the social ladder. Discussions of this story strongly reflect the interpreters’ affiliation with a reading community, revealing the assumptions that govern those communities and their engagement of the biblical text. A helpful overview of the curse of Ham story and its explanation of racial difference can be found in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. In this excerpt, five-­ year-­ old Ruth May Price recounts the story as a way of anticipating her future life as part of a Christian missionary family headed to the Congo, and also as a way of understanding her previous life in segregated Georgia: God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah’s three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drowneded out the sinners. . . . Ham was the youngest one . . . and he was bad. . . . After they all got off the ark and let the animals go is when it happened. Ham found his father Noah laying around pig-­ naked drunk one day and he thought that was funny as all get-­ out. The other two brothers covered Noah up with a blanket, but Ham busted his britches laughing. When Noah woke up he got to hear the whole story from the tattletale brothers. So Noah cursed all Ham’s children to be slaves for ever and ever. That’s how come them to turn out dark. Back home in Georgia they have their own school so they won’t be a-strutting into Rachel’s and Leah and Adah’s school. Leah and Adah are the gifted children, but they still have to go to the same school as everybody . But not the colored children. The man in church said they’re different from us and needs ought to keep to their own. Jimmy Crow says that, and he makes the laws. They don’t come in the White Castle restaurant The Social Ladder and the Family Tree 71 where Mama takes us to get Cokes either, or the Zoo. Their day for the Zoo is Thursday. That’s in the Bible.2 Like Mystère d’Adam in Auerbach’s treatment...


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